A time to stay awake | Advent 1

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

We’re still a month out from the ball dropping, the changing of our calendars to 2017, but in the liturgical cycle, this is the new year.  Year C has ended, we’re back to Year A, starting today.  The church calendar resets with Advent.  This is day 1.

So we begin.

We begin with birth.  We begin actually before birth.  We begin expecting birth.  We all start out pregnant.  Whether or not you feel it, we start the year collectively in a state of anticipation, watchfulness, alertness.  We are just enough out of sync with our other way of keeping time that it forces us reconsider our frame of reference.  What time is it?

We spent Friday with my family on the farm in Bellefontaine.  As I’m reminded every time we visit, I come from a family that has developed its own unique way of keeping time.  Probably every household has to decide for themselves how to set their clocks.  Do you set them to the actual time, or do you set them slightly ahead so you can get away with leaving the house 8:03, drive for 15 minutes, and still arrive at your destination at exactly quarter after eight?

This maybe isn’t as much an issue in an age when our main time keeper is our always reliable cell phones, but long before those days, the Miller family selected the strategy of mental trickery, setting clocks ahead.  I was never enthusiastic about this, partially because we went well overboard. The main authority on time in the house, a clock that hangs on the wall in the kitchen, still there, was often set 8, 10, even 15 minutes faster than the time that the rest of the world operated on.  The intention was to help us be on time to events, be relaxed about having more time than what first meets the eye, but what it actually did was cause more confusion than clarity.

For one, you had to remember how far ahead the clock was set, so you could do the math in your head to figure out how much free time you still had before you really had to leave.  Also, whenever someone in the house would call out and ask what time it was, they’d always get an answer from someone around a clock, but then have to ask a second question as to whether that person was using our time or the real time.  Since we had sort of established our own little time zone, we affectionately started calling it Miller time.  In Miller time you can walk out of the house and arrive at your destination earlier than when you started.

So being out of step with normal time is something that feels quite normal to me – although Abbie and I have firmly decided to end the practice of Miller time in our own house.

But all of us are in this together when it comes to sacred time.  We’re starting a new year well before the other new year is here.  We’re in our own time zone, moving to a unique sort of rhythm, taking our cues about what time it is from the sacred schedule of liturgical time.

The first voice we hear to get us oriented comes from the great Hebrew prophet Isaiah.

He says: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…and all nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.  God shall arbitrate, for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”

This is where it all starts for us.  This vision is spoken at a time of great national turmoil in Israel.  They were threatened with moral failures from within the nation, and military invasion from without.  Things seem to be coming to an end.  But this word breaks through the darkness and serves as a new beginning by offering an alternative ending to the story.  Instead of a scattered and fractured humanity, there is a common center to share, the mountain of the Lord, which acts like a magnet as it draws people from all nations to learn the ways of peace.  And everyone around it becomes a peace evangelist, recruiting others to join them.  “Come on, let’s go to the mountain of Yahweh.”  It’s a place where arbitration is happening.  Grievances are being heard and reconciled.  Restorative justice is being practiced.

The culmination of this vision involves instruments of war being converted into instruments of peace and creativity.  Isaiah imagines collecting up all the bloodied swords that were used in battles, putting on blacksmith clothes, and pounding away until the metal is reshaped into plowshares, tools for farmers to use to bring in the harvest.  It’s like driving all the tanks back to the foundry, flying all the weaponized drones back to the manufacturers, melting down the steel, and recasting it in the form of garden rakes and hoes and tillers.  Nations shall not learn war anymore.  A time when we close down the war academies and retrofit the buildings to be schools for music and philosophy and literature and medical research.

This prophecy is our starting place.  Year A.  Day 1.  And this is much more than political idealism, or a naïve hope.  This is what we might call God’s dream for the world, and the ever present ache within us for that dream to be realized.  It’s not as much a prediction of what’s certain to happen one hundred years from now, or in some near future administration, as it is an expression of the deepest longing of our humanity.  The vision is a gravitational center, drawing us in to the heart of the matter.  This is an impractically beautiful vision that encompasses all of creation.  We can feel the distance between where we are and where we’re being drawn.

We start with a prophetic ache, even a groan, and without this ache there is no new beginning, just more of the same with no end in sight.

Our first act of the new year is to express a longing deep within our gut that we believe originates in the very Creative Spirit who is the Master of the Universe.  We start with the impossible belief that in days to come all nations will learn instruction on how to live together in peace, and that harms will be repaired.

The recently departed poet, Leonard Cohen, who groaned his lyrics into song, sang: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you’ve heard, the holy, or the broken Hallelujah.”  What time is it?  It’s time to see a word breaking through our darkness, a blaze of light guiding our desires and actions.

The ache of Isaiah gives us our bearings as we enter into the apocalyptic words of Jesus from Matthew 24.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man, the Human One.  For as in the days before the flood they were eating, and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Human One.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

A quick reading of the context around these words of Jesus shows that the unknown day he is referring to is not one of universal peace like Isaiah’s, but one of near universal collapse.  And near universal collapse is exactly what Matthew’s original audience was experiencing.  Jewish nationalists had taken the temple out of the control of the Romans and their puppet priests, only to see the Romans retaliate by laying siege on Jerusalem and destroy the temple.  The entire world of these early Jewish Christians was left with literally no stone on top of another.  This is Matthew’s version of the Synoptic Apocalypse which we considered two weeks ago in Luke’s gospel.  It’s a time of unveiling.  The lectionary loves apocalypse this time of year.  It ends the old year, and begins the year.

Jesus’ words are not merely words of lament and distress.  His message is that even though everything seems to be falling apart, it’s not the end of the world.  Even though God seems distant, absent, the Son of Man, the Human One is still coming into the world.  Even though it looks like we’ve lost our humanity, the One who teaches us how to be Human is still on the way in.  Our humanity is still in the process of realizing its divinity.

The task for us who live in apocalyptic and fearful times is to pay attention.  To be watchful.  To keep doing the things that the master has asked us to do.  To keep ourselves from becoming numb and to continue feeling the ache of Isaiah.  To not accept the state of things as ‘normal.’  The key phrase that gets used for this here in Matthew is to “keep awake.”  Don’t fall asleep to the Human One’s presence in the world.  Don’t let the violence and suffering around you lull you into some kind of trance.  Keep living like a human being so that you can stay sane in an insane world.  If you fall asleep, you get swept away in it all.

Jesus uses the days of Noah as an example of how to stay awake.  Noah and his crew were paying attention, and nobody else was.  Everybody else got swept away and only Noah and his family were left behind.  Contrary to popular belief, and an entire best selling book series, it’s actually good to be left behind.  You don’t want to get swept away by the floods of popular opinion and general hopelessness, as in the days of Noah.  You want to stay grounded in God’s ache for justice that Isaiah spoke so clearly.   The ones who are sleeping and have nothing of substance to hold them down are the ones who “get took” and the ones who keep awake are the ones who are left to keep going about what life requires.

So two people could be working side by side out in the field, or in side by side cubicles in the office, or two people will be teaching in the same school, or two parents will be caring for their families in a time of turmoil — one is getting swept away by despair or fear and the other stays grounded in something solid.  And then maybe the next day it’s the other one who feels like they’re getting swept away, and the other has found some footing.

What time is it?  Time to stop sleep walking through life and allow ourselves to get prodded awake by the Human One who even now is coming into our world.

In our off kilter calendar, it is the season of watchfulness.  Christ comes to us at an unknown hour.  It’s time to synchronize our watches and live with anticipation.  This Advent, and this year we will be visited by the Christ.  Christ will ask us to be in solidarity with those for whom the coming of justice and compassion is a matter of life and death.  Even more personally, the Christ that you carry within you, will seek to be born.  You and me, like Mary, carry the Divine seed that has a life of its own.

“When will these things happen?” ask the disciples.  “No one knows,” Jesus replies.  “They’re always happening,” would be another good reply.

Christ is coming, present tense.  It’s up to us to be awake and accept the prophetic ache as our own.  The new year is here, and it’s time to wake up.


Life in the apocalypse | 13 November 2016

Text: Luke 21:5-19

So first of all, a bit of an explanation why we read from Luke 21 when the bulletin says Mark 1.  With Ted Swartz performing Laughter is Sacred Space this evening, we planned for worship this morning to address a similar theme of mental health.  Out of the many appropriate stories from scripture, I selected Mark 1, Jesus healing a man with leprosy.  There are lots of connections between the stigmas and social isolation of leprosy and mental illness.

But the lectionary gospel for this week is Luke 21.  And while it didn’t initially feel like it fit with our emphasis, the more the week unfolded, the more I was haunted by this passage.  And the more I valued the solidarity that comes with reading the same gospel passage that other Christians around the world are meditating on this morning.  So that’s what we’re going with.  And it will tie back in with mental health.

These are words from today’s lectionary gospel reading.  “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say ‘I am he.’”  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”  “They will arrest you, and persecute you.”  “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends.”

If someone were to select this passage on their own to read after this past week of all weeks I’d say they were being a little over the top.  Maybe the ecumenical committee that sat down in the mid-1980’s to create the Revised Common Lectionary knew that every so often the placement of this passage would coincide with the Sunday after an election in the United States.  Maybe that was the furthest thing from their mind.  Either way, preachers of this text today at least have the excuse that the lectionary made me do it.

It’s a passage known as the “synoptic apocalypse.”  Each of the three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke — contain their own version of Jesus’ sobering words uttered in his final days.  They were spoken, of course, not to 21st century Americans, but to 1st century Palestinian Jews, and written down by the gospel writers right at the time these very events were unfolding.  In 70 AD the Romans marched on Jerusalem to put down a Jewish rebellion.  They destroyed the second temple, and in doing so, destroyed the primary meaning making structure of an entire people.  It was the end of the world as they knew it, to quote an REM song also a product of the mid-80’s.

And apocalypse has come to mean just that.  The end of the world.

But that’s not what the word originally meant.  It’s a Greek word, the language of the Christian testament, and it means unveiling, or revealing.  That’s why the most apocalyptic apocalypse of them all, Revelation, is called Revelation.  An apocalypse reveals something that had been hidden.  It pulls away the veil, removes the illusions, and shows reality for what it is.  And it’s not always pretty.

Luke’s apocalypse, like that of Matthew and Mark, begins with something quite beautiful.  The disciples are marveling at the beauty of the temple.  And it was, indeed a marvel.  Decades of remodeling and expansion under the direction of King Herod made it the jewel of Jerusalem.  The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes almost poetically about it: “The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye.  For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays”  (Josephus, The Jewish War, 5:222).

And so just as the disciples are mesmerized with all this, Jesus goes apocalyptic on them.  To put it another way, the disciples were focused on something beautiful, solid, and enduring.  And Jesus pulled away a veil, and revealed a fuller picture.  And it’s a sobering picture of violence, fragility, and upheaval.

I so do not want to fall into the ditch of partisan politics or sensationalism, but I want to name that the election of our next President has been apocalyptic.  It has unveiled some things that not many people had fully recognized.  There are a large amount of people in our country so utterly discontent, that they were compelled to vote for someone who has essentially pledged the end of the world as we know it.  More or less.  And the full package of this is a person who has spoken openly and unapologetically against many different groups of people.

On Wednesday several of us were a part of an evening gathering outside the statehouse.  We heard tear filled laments from a number of local university students whose parents immigrated to this country, bringing them as children, without documentation, a status they still bear.  They are terrified for their future.

This week I sat down with a young African American youth pastor trying to come to grips with what to say to his youth.  At the same table was a middle aged white pastor who said his young adult daughter had just enrolled in a self-defense class.

I know we are not all of the same mind politically, thank God, but this week I have spoken with a number of you who are in various states of shock, sadness, fear, and anxiety.  Or, as one of you observed, various points around the stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression.  Not quite ready for acceptance.

I’ve also heard something else this week that’s caught my attention.  People from at least five non-overlapping spheres of life have told me they feel the need to know more about what Mennonite experience has to contribute to all this – both as a peace church that takes seriously the counter-cultural teachings of Jesus.  Mark noted to me that one of his fellow MTSO seminary grads posted that we may need to be re-teaching our young people about conscientious objection.

So I want to offer a story this morning that sits at the intersection of these concerns and the mental health focus for today.

It happened back in the 1940’s, one of those points in history when nation was rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom.  During World War II there were over 45,000 people who registered and qualified as conscientious objectors, unwilling to kill.  They represented over 100 religions, but over half were from traditional peace churches – Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites.  About half of the conscientious objectors served noncombatant roles in the military, such as medics who didn’t carry a gun.  Others were assigned to “work of national importance” within the country.  Fighting fires, building public works, having medical experiments done on them.  About 3000 served in mental hospitals.

And those serving in the mental institutions had an apocalyptic experience.  What was unveiled in front of their eyes was the awful conditions within those places:  severely overcrowded, men with no clothes, sitting in their own filth.  Violence.  Patients being violent toward one another without intervention from staff, and staff brutalizing patients in order to control them.

And these COs, after getting over the initial shock, began to contribute gestures of humanity, in an inhumane situation.  They had no training for psychiatric care, but learned quickly that patients were less violent when treated with respect.  One anecdote, told by the chairman of the War Resisters League, goes like this:  “One objector assigned to a violent ward refused to take the broomstick offered by the Charge. When he entered the ward the patients crowded around asking, “Where is your broomstick?” He said he thought he would not need it. “But suppose some of us gang up on you?” The CO guessed they wouldn’t do that and started talking about other things. Within a few days the patients were seen gathering around the unarmed attendant telling him of their troubles. He felt much safer than the Charge who had only his broomstick for company.”

Beyond this, the CO’s felt compelled to reveal the awful conditions to the public.  First sneaking a camera into one of the facilities, leading to a May 1946 issue of Life magazine publishing photos and stories from inside the mental hospitals, eventually leading to reform.  A number of these conscientious objectors continued their whole lives to champion community mental health care that addresses the needs of the whole person.

I don’t mean to elevate this as a heroic story of people changing the world.  I think a much more helpful way of seeing it is as a group of people who committed themselves to being human in inhumane circumstances.  For the health and survival of their own integrity, and for the well being of those they were asked to serve.

And this is where the truly apocalyptic begins to take full form.  When the veil is lifted, and the closed doors opened, what it reveals is not always pretty.  It can be downright terrifying.  But the Christian notion of apocalyptic goes beyond this.  Because it keeps unveiling, and keeps revealing, until finally we’re able to see the good, the true, the beautiful that we weren’t able to previously see.  It circles back to the beautiful, that initially blinded the disciples.

The Synoptic apocalypses climax not in the destruction of the world, but in the coming of the Son of Man.  One interpretation of this is that this points to the end of history, the Second Coming of Christ, the consummation of creation.  That may be the case some day, but another dimension is to recognize that Son of Man simply means “The Human One.”  The coming of the true human being.  Apocalypse reveals the darkest corners of our collective humanity, but it also can reveal our deepest, best, most Divine humanity.  Our self that is truest to who we have been created to be.

Jesus, the Human One, blurs those lines between the human and the Divine and invites and empowers us into a similar pattern of existence.  The coming of the Human Being, who lives humanly despite inhuman conditions.  Like relating to someone with a conversation rather than a broom stick.

And so may I be so bold as to say that the apocalypse is now.  And it’s not a particularly bold statement because the apocalypse, the unveling, is always happening in a post cross and resurrection world.  There are just times when we have the opportunity to see more clearly.  And resolve more firmly that we belong to God, and that we belong to each other.

It’s likely that those of us with mental health challenges, or who live with those who struggle with mental health, already know all about apocalypse.  The end of worlds as we thought we knew them.  The need to hold on to something deeper than the illness, to find the core of humanity in oneself and the other to love.

And so these are the times we live in.  When the church is at its best, it has risen to the occasion, and been a witness to the Coming of the Human One pressing in on history.




Menno Simons: pointing to the foundation | 6 November 2016

Texts: Hebrews 11:8-10,13-16

At the beginning of the 1500’s, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was falling apart.  The structure went all the way back to the 300’s, a project of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome.  After nearly 1200 years, the building needed some work.  What to do?  Renovate and remodel the existing building, or demolish the old and build something new?  Pope Julius II and the popes that followed went with the second option – out with the old, in with the new, a magnificent structure, still intact, that the American Ralph Waldo Emerson once referred to as “an ornament of the earth…the sublime of the beautiful” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 7 April 1833) .

For about as long as St. Peter’s had been around, the church had granted some form of indulgences.  This is not to be confused with what we did this past Monday when we granted to our children, and ourselves, that we could indulge in as much of our neighbors’ candy we could eat for one night.  A church- issued indulgence was “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sin.”  Traditionally, one could receive an indulgence through a prescribed good work or prayer.  In the 1500’s, when funds were tight for rebuilding St. Peter’s, several key leaders had the genius idea to market these indulgences for cash.  Your good work was a donation to the building project, and in turn you received an assurance of less punishment for your sins.

It was the “selling of indulgences” that motivated a German priest by the name of Martin Luther to write his 95 Theses against the corruptions of the church.  That was 1517, 499 years ago.  With the recent invention of the moveable type printing press, the 95 Theses document went viral across Europe like a cute kitten meme on Facebook, and what we now know as the Protestant Reformation was underway.

Monday was Halloween, which means Tuesday was All Saints Day and Wednesday All Souls Day, which means this, the first Sunday of November, is a time to remember loved ones who have died and the great cloud of witnesses of the dead that surround us, the living.  Later in the service we will light candles and speak the names of those we wish to remember today.  I’d also like to continue having this be a day in which we reflect on the life of one of our Anabaptist and Mennonite spiritual ancestors.  Last year that was Anna Janz of Rotterdam.  If you remember anything about her, you may remember the image of her handing off her young son to a local baker as she was led away to her execution, one of many early Anabaptists put to death for their convictions.  Another reminder that many chapters of church history are rated R.

Today I’d like for us to ponder the Anabaptist whose name is on our church sign, whose name we bear.  The guy who put the Menno in Menno-nite.  Menno Simons.  He’s looking right at you from the front of today’s bulletin.


Scripture: Psalm 1:1-2

Menno, son of Simon, was 28 years old when he began his first assignment as a Roman Catholic priest.  It was in a quiet town near where he grew up, in present day Netherlands.  It was the year 1524.

In one of his later writings, which is the source of all the quotes from him this morning, Menno reflects back on those early years (Menno Simons, German, 1554).  In the opening paragraph he notes that he, a priest, had never once opened a Bible, in his life, or in his first two years of pastoring.

For you children listening, this means that if you’ve gone to any Sunday school classes, and read any Bible stories, you know more about the Bible now at your age than the guy our church is named after when he started being a pastor, the same age pastor Mark started at CMC.

It’s a little hard for us to imagine that this could be the case.  But the historic church has built not only great physical structures, like St. Peter’s, but also great structures of thought and teaching.  Menno would have been educated in the theology and liturgy of the church.  He would have been led through its rooms of words and documents and practices, he would have been familiar with its walls, dividing room from room, walls holding the faithful safely inside and protecting against assaults from the outside.  Biblical language and stories would have been present in this structure, but he never had opened a Bible.  To stick with the metaphor, he knew the house, but had never walked down to the basement to examine the scriptural foundations of the church.

In that writing Menno recalls that his first tinge of doubt about church teaching had to do with the bread and wine of the Mass that he handled so frequently, that they did not, as was taught, become the body and blood of the Lord.  After initially seeing these thoughts as a temptation from the devil, he finally walked down into the metaphorical basement and examined the New Testament for himself.

If you’ve ever doubted certain aspects of what you were taught, or questioned your faith, you may be able to relate to what followed.  A house can be a pretty comfortable place to live.  Familiar.  But when the layout stops making sense, when you consider moving or removing one part of the structure, there can be an immediate fear that that whole thing might crumble.  If you take out that beam, and that post, and that load bearing wall, you’re in trouble.  Does this thing need remodeled or is it beyond repair?

It’s a question the reformers and various church leaders were answering in all kinds of different ways in the 16th century.

Luther’s writings were in circulation when Menno discovered the Bible frequently finding little support there for key church teachings.  In his writing, Menno states: “I was in so far helped by Luther, however: that human instructions cannot bind unto eternal death.”  Apparently Menno’s immediate concern was that he was in danger of the fires of hell for questioning church teaching, but he was helped by Luther’s writing to see that the teachings were human rather than Divine instructions.  He was freed to further explore the Scriptures for what they taught.

Scripture:      Matthew 26:47,51-52

The more Menno studied, the more he felt called to a personal conversion.  He continued on as a priest and was moved down the road to his hometown of Witmarsum, and even grew in popularity as his preaching improved with his expanded knowledge of the Bible.  He writes, “Everyone sought and desired me; the world loved me and I loved the world.  It was said that I preached the Word of God and was a good fellow.”

But he also began to pay attention to Anabaptists who were claiming the Bible and Spirit as their sole authorities.  He was especially intrigued by their practice of voluntary adult baptism, believer’s baptism.  This was a break from the long mandated infant baptism which theologically served to cover one from original sin, and politically served to enroll one in the books as a citizen and future tax payer and military recruit.

Menno’s crisis point came when a group of Anabaptists did some selective literal biblical translation about the coming of the kingdom of God, setting themselves up in the city of Munster as the New Jerusalem.  They expelled the Lutherans and Catholics and took up arms when a local ruler attempted to retake the city.  The Anabaptists in Munster were slaughtered.

Menno looked on all this and wrote: “After this had transpired, the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul…Alas!  Through the ungodly doctrines of Munster, and in opposition to the Spirit, Word, and example of Christ, they drew the sword to defend themselves, the sword which the Lord commanded Peter to put up in its sheath…I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith.”

Menno observed his own comfortable life.  He shared many convictions with the Anabaptists but saw that many of them were going astray, in his own words, “the poor straying sheep who wandered as sheep without a proper shepherd.”  He decided to make a clean break with the Roman Catholic church and his vocation as a priest.  “I, without constraint, renounced all my worldly reputation, fame, my unchristian abominations, my masses, infant baptism and my easy life, and I willingly submitted to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ.

Menno received his re-baptism, joined the Anabaptists and went into hiding.  He was very active, but seems to have preferred a withdrawn life of writing, and his writings became influential within and beyond Anabaptist circles.  He placed great significance in Jesus’ refusal of violence and his command to Peter to put away his sword.  He frequently cited the letters of Paul where they talk about the believer’s weapons as spiritual rather than physical.  He wrote against capital punishment, making a simple argument that the Christian ruler who gave the command was either killing a fellow believer, a “living grain of the Bread of Christ,” or was cutting short a non-believer’s chance to repent.

It’s been observed that Menno wasn’t a particularly well-versed theologian.  His writings focus on the practice of the Christian life, and especially, what it means to be the church together.  When he did try to get overly theological, he could get off target like his teaching of the “heavenly flesh” of Jesus.  That for Jesus to be perfect he had to get his flesh from God, not Mary.

Jeff Gundy teaches poetry at Bluffton University in Ohio and a few years ago wrote a poem that refers to this teaching.  It’s called “When Madonna met Menno.”  Yes, that Madonna.  As they sit crammed into a small booth at a café over some beers, Menno tells Madonna:

“I did a lot of brooding about the Blessed Mary back then.. .I decided
that Jesus slide out of her like a seed through a tube.
She was just a vase for the beautiful flower.” “What a load,”
said Madonna. “Mary was Jesus, and he was her, too.”
“Yeah, I’ve been wrong before,” said Menno. “You want
a basket of fries, another beer?”   (from Spoken Among the Trees, 2007)

As his writings circulated, Menno was approached by a group of Anabaptists who asked him to be a bishop in that region.  This involved traveling to meet with different gatherings, to preach and teach and baptize and train leaders.  He accepted, and shepherded Dutch Anabaptists through a difficult era and helped forge a new church identity.  Those under his care came to be called Mennists, and eventually, Mennonites.  Later Swiss Anabaptists would take on that name as well.

He would not end up among the Anabaptist martyrs.  But he was frequently on the move, going from safe house to safe house.  He married a woman named Gertrude, but we don’t know much about her.  They had at least three children.  He wrote about not having a permanent place of refuge.  He died on his sick bed around the age of 65.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:11

The man who had never read the Bible until two years into the priesthood did come to have a favorite Bible passage.  On the front page of each of his writings he would include this verse from 1 Corinthians 3:11.  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

He went into the basement of the structure he was a part of and took a long hard look at the foundation.  In reading the foundational Scriptures of the church, he saw even the Scriptures pointing beyond themselves, to the person of Christ.  He believed the Christ to be very much alive within the heart of the believer and the collective life of the church, and that the church was inherently a living structure entered into voluntarily, without compulsion, through the conviction of the Spirit.  A church that is peaceful.

One of the confusing results of the 16th century is how the great structure of the Western Church came to be many smaller structures.  There was some renovating of the old, but lots of new construction, resulting in hundreds and now thousands of Christian groups claiming to have the same foundation of Christ but often looking very different in how we teach and practice being the church.

One of the great tasks of the 21st century is to recognize the living Christ present within all these different people in all these different structures we have created.  Even in structures that don’t bear the name of Christ, that come out of completely different wisdom traditions from different homelands.  The children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Menno and the children of Luther and children of St. Peter, the children of the Buddha and the children of Mohammad — all children of God, all living in this common house we know as planet earth.

May our house, this living structure, be a place of hospitality and Shalom to all who enter as we bear the name of Christ.



Treasure and heart | 16 October 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-15; Matthew 6:21

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to Jourdan Anderson’s 1865 letter to his old master, to the color coded map on the front of our bulletin, to the Black Manifesto, to Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.  A long and winding road.  The letter and the map are both pieces that Adam brought in to our Exodus Bible Study class in the spring.  We were trying to make connections between the Hebrew’s exodus from slavery narrative and the African American experience.  These two pieces did that, with the bonus of bringing it home to Ohio soil.

Last Sunday’s sermon included the story of James Forman interrupting worship services at predominantly white churches throughout 1969, beginning with the influential Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  He did this to read from the recently written Black Manifesto which called for reparations for black Americans from white Christians and Jews.

One hundred years before this a formerly enslaved man named Jourdon Anderson, living in Dayton Ohio, wrote a private letter to his former master (included at the end of the sermon).  The old master had initiated the correspondence, as Jourdon acknowledges in the opening.  “Sir, I got your letter and was glad you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again.”  Jourdon goes on to highly qualify what he might mean by “glad.”  It seems that the former master still holds a place for Jourdon in his heart.  The feeling, it seems, is not mutual.  The formerly enslaved Jourdon would only be glad for a reunion if the old master has a change of heart.  And Jourdon is careful to outline just what a change of heart would look like.  He essentially asks that his old master give up all claims of masterhood, present, future, and, very importantly, past.  Treasure accumulated from the unpaid labor of Jourdon and his wife would be returned to them.  These fair wages would now serve as reparations.  Even though late in coming, they would be a sign that, in the words of Jourdon, “the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.”

There are any number of teachings from the gospels that relate to what we’ve been talking about.  But I want to pick out one brief statement from Jesus as a way of following a thread through these different eras and stories in front of us.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  He makes a direct connection between treasure and heart, and I want to follow this thread of treasure and heart for a while.  It will be winding, but hopefully not too long.

For the ancients, the heart was the center of the being.    It was the home of physical warmth and energy.  It was also the seat of intelligence, of intention, and even sensation, perception.  The condition of the heart had moral overtones.  You think and sense and reason and aim with your heart.

These days our fascination has migrated about a foot and a half north to the brain as the center of the being, but our language is still peppered with these ideas about the heart.  A lovely and relatively new phrase that Brene Brown has popularized is whole-hearted.  Whole-hearted living involves things such as authenticity, vulnerability, gratitude, cultivating creativity.  Whole-hearted.

A key part of Jesus’ teaching is how he orders treasure and heart.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   The order implies that the place where we put our treasure – our resources, our time, our relationships, our money – is the place our heart ends up.  In this arrangement, our heart follows rather than leads our treasure.

For where you put your money, there you mind will go.

For how you use your time, there your temperament will be formed.

When I think about how this has played out in my own life I think about how purchasing our first house elevated my awareness of the surrounding area — the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati, uncoincidentally on the same street as Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  All of a sudden, we were invested, and I felt my involvement and interests, and interest, and intelligence and intentions, shaped by that investment.  I could sense that happening in a way it hadn’t before.  Purchasing real estate is a big decision.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I also think about our girls entering school.  When your treasured children walk out the door to be instructed in another setting, your heart follows close behind.  And it goes not only with them, but the heart becomes all the more wrapped up in the well-being of that classroom, and that particular school, and that particular school system.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There’s a story in the book of Jeremiah where the relationship between treasure and heart shows up.  For years, decades, Jeremiah had been preaching the unpopular message of Jerusalem’s destruction.  And now, that day had arrived.  The Babylonians, under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar, have surrounded the city and put it under siege.  The city walls will be breached, its buildings leveled to the ground, the holy temple plundered and burned, its treasures carried off to Babylon, the princes captured and executed, the king and other city leaders and nearly all the people forcefully marched away in exile, carried off to Babylon.

Jeremiah was the prophet of doom who warned about all this.

But he was not without hope for the future.  He also prophesied a restoration.  And in Jeremiah 32 we read an account of him putting his money where his mouth was, firmly planting his heart in the Judean soil.

In the middle of the siege we get this rather detailed account of a real estate transaction.  King Zedekiah of Judah is convinced Jeremiah is going to defect to the Babylonians, so he has him imprisoned in the king’s palace.  Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel finds Jeremiah and asks him to buy his field in their ancestral area of Anathoth just east of Jerusalem.  We’re not told what prompted Hanamel to make this request, but the Torah taught that if someone was in dire need and had to sell off land in order to survive in the moment, that it fell to the nearest family member to purchase that land to keep it in the family.  The right of redemption – the obligation of redemption.

Buying land in a war zone is not exactly a good investment.  But Jeremiah had received a vision from God telling him to make the purchase.  So he does.  And the text is very careful to give us an almost play by play account of this economic exchange.  The deed is signed and copied, by hand of course, with witnesses.  One of the copies is sealed and one left open for quick reference.  The money is weighed and exchanged.  Both deeds are carefully placed in an earthen jar for preservation.  It is an official, genuine, legal exchange of property, with the papers to prove it.  Cousin Hanamel gets the silver, Jeremiah gets the family land about to be abandoned.  The point of the act is not for Jeremiah to buy low so he can sell high.  It will not be appreciating in his lifetime.  It is portrayed in the text as a symbolic prophetic action.  The sequence continues with Jeremiah 32:15 stating, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  This is followed up with a prayer by Jeremiah, now crying out to God because he’s pretty sure he’s just made the worst investment of his life.

Just as soon as his street cred as a prophet is assured with Jerusalem’s destruction, he again looks like a fool, asked to invest in a restoration yet to come.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  Jeremiah will end his days exiled down in Egypt, but his heart, his longing heart, was camped out by his treasure in the depopulated fields of his kindred.

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to the present moment.  Many hearts have followed much treasure along the way.  And there has been much plunder.

Between Jourdon Anderson’s letter suggesting reparations from his old master – 1865 – and James Forman’s Black Manifesto demanding reparations from white churches and synagogues – 1969 – there was this map, and more real estate transactions that affected treasure and heart.  This map was first published in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a creation of the US Congress.  The goal was to help households refinance troubled mortgages during and after the Great Depression.  To do this Columbus and other cities across the US were split up into these four color coded categories with green considered the most desirable and safest areas to issue mortgages and other kinds of loans, and red considered the least desirable, highest risk mortgage.  Black neighborhoods were famously redlined.  Then and in the decades that followed as this became an entrenched practice, they didn’t receive the kind of mortgage and business and credit financing that enabled ownership and wealth building in other communities.  Neighborhoods with recent immigrants, even some recent European immigrants were also downgraded.



The colors on that map don’t directly correspond to racial or economic distributions in Columbus today, but they are a key part of the story.  Needless to say, redlining is another layer in the painful history of masterhood, and treasure acquired by some and denied to others.  I did zoom in on the map online and note that Columbus Mennonite Church is located in one of the few green zones.  And so I wonder, Does that mean something to us now, and if so, what is that?

It would be one thing if this was a situation where we had personally wronged someone and could make amends.  We would get a letter from our Jourdan Anderson outlining the extent of the damage, the treasure we have accumulated at the other’s expense, and the address we can mail the debt we owe.  It would be hard to swallow, but specific and concrete.  An act of reparations.

And there might be interpersonal situations like this we need to attend to.

But it all feels so much more subtle and elusive than that.  Redlining is no longer legal, but its effects are everywhere.  And if you’ve considered buying a home you’ve likely wrestled with all the factors of meeting your own needs and living out your values, and how zip codes are still coded with the opportunities and deficits we’ve inherited from the past.  Schools, for example.  And then there’s this cycle that gets perpetuated.  For where you treasure is, there you heart will be also?

Treasure is segregated, which means there’s always the danger of our hearts being segregated.  This is one of the great spiritual challenges of our time.  How to live in a time of treasure segregation without this encompassing the condition of our heart – our ability to see, the intentionality with which we go about our relationships, our intelligence and ability to understand others experiences, taking concrete actions to right past wrongs.  Our longing to live whole-hearted lives, in the pattern of Jesus, is frequently an act of resistance to the patterns so readily available to us.

I truly believe and hope that this awareness and consciousness we’re trying to develop together can be a source of empowerment rather than guilt and disempowerment.  We have treasure.  And we have heart.  There are ways that each of us can follow the cues of Jeremiah and invest in restoration.  It can be as simple as deciding to frequent a black owned business.  Or, like Barb Gant who bought 50 Black Lives Matter yard signs and has made them available at the church.  When I asked her how much I owe her she said, “Nothing.  Everyone can do something and this is one thing I’m doing.”  If the saying of Jesus holds up, when we intentionally put our treasure toward the restoration, then something wonderful and life-giving happens to our own hearts.  We sense and see new things, we think new thoughts, love gives birth to love, and we get glimpses of the great restoration yet to come.

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

From: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/01/to-my-old-master.html?m=1

Temple sermons | 9 October 2016

Jeremiah 7, 26

Temple sermon #1

It was the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, a little before 600 BCE.  Jeremiah, the priest and prophet, went and stood in the gate of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.  He proceeded to deliver a sermon that did not bring the house down.  It didn’t physically bring the house down.  The invading Babylonians would do that 20 years later.  It didn’t inspirationally bring the house down.  As far as we can tell, nobody was laughing, clapping, or shouting ‘Amen’ at Jeremiah’s words.  On the contrary, the text says when he was finished: “then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!’”  Wow – not a sermon response most seminaries prepare you for.  I much prefer silence followed by a hymn.

In the sermon, Jeremiah had challenged the mentality that the temple was the ultimate source of security for the people.  He says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.’”  The way Jeremiah talks about it, this must have been a popular sentiment, and even a popular phrase of the time.  One neighbor says to another: ‘Hey, have you heard about those nasty Babylonians trying to take over the world?’  The neighbor replies: ‘Yeah, but we’re all good.  You know, we’ve got the temple of Yahweh.’  ‘Totally, the temple of Yahweh.’  The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.

Jeremiah has a different suggestion.  “If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to you own hurt, then Yahweh will dwell with you in this place.”  In other words, if you want security, work for justice.  Stability proceeds from protecting the economically vulnerable.  If you want things to be all good, make sure all are getting access to the goods.

It’s an important enough sermon that we get two different accounts of it.  Jeremiah 7 focuses on the sermon itself, and chapter 26 does a quick summary of the sermon and focuses on the reaction to it.  It’s called, simply enough, “The temple sermon.”

Temple Sermon #2

About 600 years after Jeremiah, Jesus entered the Jerusalem of his day on the back of a donkey and headed into the rebuilt temple.  The beloved, sacred institution of his people was failing those who most needed it to be a place of safety and security.  It had become an instrument of wealth redistribution from the bottom to the top.  In the mind of Jesus, this was defiling its sacred mission to honor YHWH, the god who delivered the Hebrews from slavery.  In his sermon Jeremiah had referred to the temple as a den of robbers, and Jesus samples those prophetic words in his own temple sermon.  This, we may remember, also did not go over so well.

Temple sermon #3          

May 4, 1969.  On that Sunday, James Forman interrupted a worship service at the influential, predominantly white, Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  Forman stood in the pulpit and proceeded to read from a newly written document called The Black Manifesto.

If you’re like me, you never heard about this.

I first learned about it reading Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians.  She highlights this as a pivotal event in the relationship between white Christians and African Americans.  The first thing I noticed with this date, May 4, 1969, is that it’s a year and a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968.  It made me realize that I have a big gaping hole in my understanding of the black struggle post King and that I’ve mis-learned the outcomes of the Civil Rights struggle.  Harvey writes:

“The way we remember the civil rights movement, which typically involves telling a triumphant tale of successful social transformation, is deeply inaccurate.  By the end of the 1960’s many Black Americans – including Black Christians – were not hailing civil rights as the success we hail it today.  In contrast, the end of the 1960’s found many African Americans in a state of despair and outrage” (p. 103).

Harvey tells the story of The Black Manifesto to illustrate the point.

It came out of the National Black Economic Development Conference.  A group of black leaders had been meeting for years with white religious leaders and were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the white leaders’ refusal to deal with the underlying material issues of jobs, housing, and financial resources for black folks – the deficits all a result of past and present injustices and outright theft of black resources.  The National Black Economic Development Conference was a black-only gathering in Detroit looking at what might be next for economic and community development strategies.  On the final night of the conference, James Forman introduced the Black Manifesto, which was endorsed by about a 3 to 1 vote.

On May 4, 1969, and in following weeks and months, Forman interrupted worship services in predominantly white congregations to read the Manifesto.  It’s about four pages.  Now easily accessed online.

The overarching theme of the Manifesto was a call for reparations.  $500 million paid from white churches across America to the Black Economic Development Conference.  It included specific ways the money would be used with assigned amounts, including a Black university in the South, a research skills center, a southern land bank, publishing and printing industries, a training center, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund.  Throughout the Manifesto it periodically notes that the amount of $500,000,000 is a modest amount, equal to only $15 per black American at that time.    One of the critiques of the document was that the amount demanded was far too low.  One white theologian, writing favorably about the Manifesto in the Christian Century in June of ’69, noted that churches could collectively raise the amount in a month of Sunday offerings.  That article was called: Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope.  (Ronald Goetz, “Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope,” The Christian Century 86 (June 18, 1969).

Harvey cites two scholars of the period who claimed: “Manifesto-related events caused greater vibrations in the US religious world than any other single human rights development in a decade of monumental happenings” (p. 108).  I had no idea.

Forman’s listeners didn’t instantly call for his death like those of Jeremiah’s temple sermon, but 2/3rds of the congregation, including the minister and choir, did walk out in protest.  To his credit, the Riverside minister, Ernest T. Campbell, did soon state that the Manifesto had “sound theological pinnings.”  In less than a week Campbell became the first white clergy leader to endorse the concept of reparations, although he didn’t mention following the demands of the Manifesto.

Jennifer Harvey names a number of the responses to the Manifesto, positive and negative.  But needless to say, the reason hardly any of us have heard this story before is that the white church came nowhere near responding in a constructive way.  It’s a legacy we’re still living with.  Imagine where we might be today if the church had accepted the challenge and fulfilled that specific call for reparations.  Or exceeded the amount.  Maybe it’s not too late to creatively respond.

Temple sermon #4

Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher born in Mississippi.  He was the only white person in the room at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He was one of the few people escorting black students through the hostile environment in the newly integrated public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas.  He died in 2013 at age 88.  If you like Wendell Berry, you’d like Will Campbell.  They’re cut from the same cloth of truth-telling contrariness and curmudgeonhood.

Will Campbell was once asked to preach at the Riverside Church, in Manhattan, New York.  I don’t know what year it was, but it was a number of years after Forman had interrupted a service to read the Black Manifesto.  There’s an hour long documentary of Campbell’s life that contains a clip from the sermon.  Here’s what he said in that rather immaculate space:

“So the question we are really asking is: What can we do about race and racism in American culture, and keep all this?  The answer, my brothers and sisters, is NOTHIN’.”  (https://vimeo.com/55126898  9:00 mark and following)

See, it’s a lot easier to quote other people for these things and then if you want to get angry at someone you can just get angry at them.

Jeremiah and Jesus and James Forman and Will Campbell gave their temple sermons in sacred spaces.  Not the town square, not a government building, but a temple, a church building.  Part of the reason has to be that this is where the people were, where key leaders were gathered.

We might also consider how having these appeals made in sacred space relates with our very sense of the sacred, and what offends us as a violation of the sacred.

What we hold as sacred is what holds our world together.  Everything else orbits around that gravitational center.  It’s not that Jeremiah was asking the people to give up the sacred.  He’s not mocking or belittling sacredness.  But he did suggest that folks had been duped.  What they held as utterly sacred, the temple in their case, or, was a lousy substitute for what YHWH held as sacred – the lives of the poor, widow, aliens, and orphan.  When their lives were violated, that’s what made Jeremiah offended.  That what energized him to stand up and speak.  But in doing so he challenged what other people held as sacred.

One of the dynamics we seem to be living through in our nation now is the challenge of another thing held sacred: The long, slow, painful death of white supremacy.

So what do we hold as sacred, or what can we aspire to hold as sacred, and how does that energize us?  We have a diversity of beliefs here, but one thing that holds us together is that we gather around the sacred.  There are realities, aspects of life, our morality and our mortality, that hold a sense of the sacred.  Transcendence.  Realities we honor, in whose presence we bow, which inspire awe, which we approach with thanksgiving. Spirit, Grace, Love, Justice, Christ.  The sacred asks, even demands, we value it to the point of submitting our lives to its power.  To soften our hearts, be filled with these sacred gifts, and give them back to the world, to God, in gratitude.

Even if we’re not always conscious of it, the sacred holds us in its embrace.

What these temple sermons challenge us to consider, is that the sacred also has very material manifestations.  Living within the holy has relational implications.  Economic implications.  Implications on how we use and share and give away power.  And, if we’re no longer trying to ‘keep all this,’ this is where it starts getting really real.

“To uproot, pull down, destroy, and overthrow.  To build and to plant.”  | 2 October 2016

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-19

 The opening chapter of Jeremiah narrates his call to be a prophet.  It’s told in the first person.  “Now the word of the Lord came to me.”  In typical Hebrew Bible fashion, it’s not clear how “the word of the Lord” actually came.  Whether it was through the voice of another person, a conviction heard inwardly, a message on the inside wrapping of a Dove chocolate.  What’s clear is that the call reaches the young Jeremiah, and sets the trajectory of his life.  The word of the Lord said, “I appoint you a prophet to the nations,” and this is what Jeremiah became.

A little over a year ago the chairs of the different CMC Commissions sat down together.  We asked ourselves the question: What do we need to be paying attention to?  What’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the congregation, what’s going on in our hearts, and might this point to some kind of overarching focus for the coming year?  After filling up a white board with input, and giving space for silent reflection on what we had heard from one another, a strong consensus emerged that we need to be talking about race.  Although we often hesitate to use this language, another way of saying this would be that through this shared discernment, the word of the Lord came to us.  The word of the Lord came to us, gave us a calling, and set us on a trajectory.

During the season of Lent we had a worship theme of Trouble the Waters.  We took a collective dive into the waters of white privilege, black lives matter, and a posture of antiracism.  This month of October will be a similar worship theme.  The prophet Jeremiah will be our tour guide as we ponder moving beyond an ideology of colorblindness, into racial consciousness, toward lives that reject and even disrupt racism and work for justice.  I’m aware that the previous pastors, Steve and Susan Ortman Goering would regularly address difficult subjects, hot potatoes, during the month of October, so we carry on in that spirit.

One of the books informing my own thinking these days is written by Jennifer Harvey.  It’s called Dear White Christians.  Toward the beginning, she describes an exercise she uses with her college students.  She asks them to imagine “what they would think if they saw a group of African American students walking across campus, carrying signs that stated, ‘Black is beautiful’” (p. 44).  Students typically interpret a scene like this as an expression of community pride, a celebration of black identity, or perhaps a protest of some kind of recent injustice.  Overall students register a positive, favorable response to such an expression.

Harvey then asks the students to imagine what their impressions might be if they saw a group of students carrying a sign saying, “White is beautiful.”

She notes that this is the point where students usually get pretty quiet, squirmy, shaking their heads.  No, this isn’t OK.

Why? Harvey pushes.  Don’t we want to include all kinds of diversity?  Well, the students stumble, “calling white ‘beautiful’ seems like an endorsement of white supremacy or a rallying cry for the Ku Klux Klan.”  Harvey writes: “They’re not sure why our commitment to diversity does not make it possible for these ‘white’ signs to communicate the same message as do the ‘Black’ signs.  But they are very clear the signs are not the same” (p. 45).

Ta-Nehisi Coates also addresses this “not the same” dynamic in Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to his 15 year old son.  The historic problem, Coates makes clear, is not one of diversity, but one of abusive hierarchy.  The whole impetus behind the very creation of racial categories was to establish a social hierarchy, and the legacy persists.

Coates’ language is direct.  And it just so happens that in a quote addressing these matters he mentions Mennonites.  Here’s what he says, using “the people” and “the new people” to refer to white folks.  And remember, this is a letter written to his son.

“The process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.  Difference in hue and hair is old.  But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.  These new people are, like us, a modern invention.  But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning, divorced from the machinery of criminal power.  The new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again” (p. 7).

I don’t often pull in long quotes from books during sermons, but I want to bring in Harvey’s and Coates’ voices as a way of recognizing the broader cultural conversation happening right now.  And as a way of more clearly naming the non-symmetrical nature of racialization.  The problem is not primarily one of diversity, but one of hierarchy.  And it persists.  And we’re all caught up in it.  And it reaches way down into the subconscious, and it manifests itself in small, and deadly ways.

All this amounts to what Harvey call the ‘moral crisis of whiteness.’  It’s not that there’s anything morally wrong with this beautiful, tan-able light skin.  It’s that the category of ‘white’ is morally problematic.

When the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, it says that the Lord put out a hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth.  “And the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today, I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Eve has been doing some math homework with fractions, and so I notice that 4/6’s of the actions Jeremiah is called to do – which reduces to 2/3rds of the actions Jeremiah is called to do – are actually focused on un-doing.  The metaphors are drawn from the familiar worlds of agriculture and construction.  I appoint you to uproot, pull down, destroy, and overthrow, to build and to plant.  The implication is that something has grown up which is detrimental to the health of the community.  Some kind of moral edifice has been constructed which violates all manner of code and has been officially condemned as unsafe for occupancy.  It’s not enough to simply plant and build.  The first order of business, the larger and more difficult task, filling out a full 2/3rds of the job description, is demolition.  Toppling over.  Tearing things up by their roots.  A great undoing.

To echo the language of Ta-Nehisi Coates, if whites folks, who were “something else before they were white,” are to fulfill hope and “become something else again,” giving up whiteness as an organizing identity, then it will take more than simply building something fresh or planting something new.  It will involve some difficult and perhaps painful soul work.  It will involve uprooting unconscious biases.  It will involve pulling down and toppling systems which enable privilege to thrive unnamed.  It will involve giving up power, listening, learning, giving up home field advantage regarding who sets the agenda for the work to be done.  If Coates and Harvey are to be followed as they develop their arguments, it involves reparations for past harms.  It involves walking toward pain rather than away from it, and walking toward the unknown.  When things get undone, when the structures come down and the fields are cleared, the map starts to look pretty unfamiliar and confusing.

No wonder prophets drove people crazy.  This isn’t fun.  This isn’t how most people want to be spending their Thursday evenings.

And Jeremiah, frankly, wants nothing to do with the whole mess.  He is definitely not a self-appointed prophet.  Jeremiah’s response is that he’s too young, but the larger point is that he doesn’t want to do it.  Period.

He follows in the grand tradition of Hebrew prophets actively resisting this call that comes at them from beyond.  Moses claimed he couldn’t speak, Isaiah claimed he had unclean lips, Elijah and Jonah said they’d prefer to die – very dramatic stuff.  It’s almost as if not wanting the job is the primary prerequisite for doing the Lord’s work.  Resistance to the call is a sign that you are indeed called.  That way the ego is already out of the way.  The primary obstacle is already removed.  It’s not about you, it’s so much bigger than that.  Maybe that’s half the work of the first 2/3rds, which I believe amounts to 1/3rd of the overall work.  To see if all the math is right you can check the church website which is doing a real time fact check of today’s service.

So what does Jeremiah get out of this?  What’s in it for him?  When you’re trying to convince someone to get on board with a project you’re supposed to appeal to their self-interest.  So how is this call going to help Jeremiah?

Well, if Jeremiah could peak ahead and see how all this was going to unfold, he might struggle to see how his self-interest was being met.  He lived during a time of national deconstruction, when the great emerging empire of the time, the Babylonians, would come and conquer his people and carry them off into exile.  Jeremiah himself would eventually flee to Egypt.  He’s not called the weeping prophet for nothing.  He lived during a period of national travail, and it didn’t get sorted out in his lifetime.

But one thing he does gain from his eventual Yes to this project, shows up already in chapter one.  After the initial call, and the no, I’m too young, and the do not be afraid for I am with you, and the divine hand reaching out to touch Jeremiah’s lips, and the assignment of uprooting and knocking down and building up, after that rather overwhelming sequence after which it’s not clear at all how Jeremiah would take even the first step toward fulfilling this call…after this, Jeremiah is asked a very simple question:

Verse 11 of chapter 1: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’”

What do you see, Jeremiah?  What do you see?  Not what’s you plan?  What are you going to do?  When are you going to do it?  It will come to that soon enough.  But first, What do you see?  Take a look around.  Go outside and walk around the block.  Drive around the neighborhood.  Drive around somebody else’s neighborhood.  Take your time.  What do you see?  Make an observation.  Notice something.  Pay a little closer attention than you have before and tell me, What do you see?

Getting on board with the word of the Lord means that Jeremiah gets to see things he would not have seen otherwise.  He gets to open his eyes, look, and see.  What’s he’s going to see isn’t always going to be easy to look at.  It might be about 2/3rds devastating and 1/3rd beautiful.  But he is given the gift of sight.

Jesus will have a similar invitation to his followers when he will say, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you have seen.  For many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).

One of the features of how racism persists in our time is that it thrives on blindness.  It manages to be outrageously obvious to those who experience it, while at the same time being nearly invisible to those who don’t.  It requires blindness and forgetfulness of history in order to stay alive.

And so a first question to those who accept the call to uproot and tear down, and build up, is What do you see?  And if you don’t see anything, if all we see is our own blindness, then that’s a pretty honest place to start.

Look around.  Pay attention.  Do not be afraid.  What do you see?

From loss to celebration | 11 September 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10


It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new.  It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year.  And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.

Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme.  But with all three we have a full plate.

One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event.  Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally.  Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened.  Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school.  The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known.  Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone.  We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.

I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story.  A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time.  Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss.  Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind.  Loss.

Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people.  By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis.  His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians.  Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile.  Only the poor were left behind to work the land.

Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’  At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”

Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people.  In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”  His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack.  He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries.  Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.

Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days.  There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement.  Jeremiah could have used this counsel.

Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage.  There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu.  In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.”  It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23.  The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth, it was formless and void.”  ToHu va BoHu.

In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation.  It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates.  It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations.  Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea.  Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim.  The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made.  It is complete, but merely beginning.  The stage is set, so to speak.  The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness.  The kitchen is almost ready.

In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void.  Light!  Land!  Creatures of sea, earth, and sky.  Humanity.  Order and life emerge from disorder.  Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate.  Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.

Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim.  The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them.  More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct.  They will soon start making stuff, making decisions.  And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.

This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being.   This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind.  The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.

And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth.  But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry.   The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.”  When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse.  The video is playing backwards.  The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste.  The world that he loves has been un-created.  It is a picture of devastating loss.

And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss.  There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence.  That’s one kind of loss.  But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing.  There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world.  A crisis of meaning.  By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds.  A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those.  Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them.  And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home.  They have been exiled from all they hold sacred.  The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.

After the weeping, what’s next?  In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.

If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years.  We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid.  I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people.  It’s an incredibly powerful myth.  We were once a blessed and great people.  We will be great again.  Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives.  But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality.  Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth.  We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.

Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days?  Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might?  A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness.  For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.

When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took.  We are starting the Sunday school year today.  More than just learning information and  Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told.  And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us.  Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.

Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history.  The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive.  They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity.  They are watching over us for our well-being.  Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us.  The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us.  The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.

But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it.  It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.

The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated.  For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since.   The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.

You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying.  It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And that’s not the end of it.

The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live.  It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection.  New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance.  It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs.  It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life.  It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture.  To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found.  And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found.  And the earth and heavens rejoice.